Driving south (way south) on Interstate 55 one day last week, we stopped for lunch about a hundred miles north of New Orleans, determined to find a home-grown restaurant.

The streets just off the interstate in McComb, Miss., are a replica of West Market Street in Bloomington: a herd of hotel chains and most every fast food joint known to man. We drove past it all, into the town (population 13,644) in search of an eatery loved by locals.

McComb, I was to learn, had some of the nation’s worst civil rights violence in the 1960s and is the birthplace of Britney Spears and Bo Diddley. It also has the most desolate-looking downtown I’ve ever seen.

Oh, the people of McComb will protest. Check the town’s website and you’ll see they believe their downtown is on the rebound. All I know is that, at first glimpse, it appears all but abandoned, utterly unnoticed. But its layout and architecture caused me to imagine that long ago it might have had the vitality once enjoyed by downtown Bloomington.

McComb’s vacant storefronts set me to thinking about Bloomington’s pre-mall era when hundreds of shoppers stood at downtown intersections, waiting for traffic lights to change on “Dollar Day.” About how the opening of Eastland Mall 50 years ago began the erosion of downtown’s retail vibrancy.

Eastland became the Twin Cities’ town square, the scene of daily bake sales, music performances, voter registration, Pinewood derbies, crazy radio promotions and Mike Iceberg at the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Then my smartphone pinged with word J.C. Penney’s — one of Eastland’s two original anchor stores — is going to close, news that hit like an exclamation point to the earlier report Macy’s will shutter its store at the mall this weekend. And then came this week’s acknowledgement by Sears, Eastland’s other original anchor, that the company’s very future is in “substantial doubt.”

A confusing sea change is underway in retail — not just in Bloomington-Normal, but across the country, a transformation at least as momentous as when many downtowns lost their retail zing decades ago.

Malls once were eager to cut special deals with department store tenants because the big stores were destinations, generating foot traffic for the rest of the mall. Today, owners of malls in healthy markets aren’t all that unhappy when an anchor departs because they think they can make a bigger buck by repurposing the space into specialty stores where consumers believe they can find a wider selection.

Whether that can happen here anytime soon is an unknown. We do know local retail sales have been trending lower after peaking about four years ago. Even if the local economy were robust (Moody’s says our community is in a recession), we’d still be dealing with Amazon and the growth of online shopping.

The U.S. Commerce Department says 7.4 percent of retail sales were online four years ago. Forrester Research says that number will reach 11 percent next year. We’ve become comfortable making e-commerce purchases on tablets and smartphones. We like the ability to find the size and color we want at a competitive price, home delivery with convenient return policies and a good chance we’ll pay no sales tax.

So what will happen locally? Some will recall how College Hills Mall opened with great fanfare 13 years after Eastland’s debut, Montgomery Ward and Carson Pirie Scott its original anchors. But that mall closed in 2004 to be made over into “an open air, lifestyle center,” the current Shoppes at College Hills. It got new owners early this year. One of its major stores, Gordmans, filed for bankruptcy this month.

Want to be further confounded? Amazon is now opening brick-and-mortar stores. What does it know?

The old mall model may be worn out. Maybe there are opportunities to present something fresh that will generate shoppers. A need to be really inventive.

Dare I put the words “library” and “mall” in the same sentence?

Vogel, of rural Bloomington, can be reached at vogelgraph@yahoo.com.


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